When A Community Attacks Itself: The Dysfunction that Leads to Community Collapse in the Name of Activism
In our most recent months, with the election of Donald Trump, scandals involving local professionals, violence in our region’s jails, and the publication of the book Hillbilly Elegy, there was created a vibe of high tension. Because Whitesburg (my hometown) is the location of the well- known and nationally respected arts and media non-profit – Appalshop, national media highlights my hometown in anything dealing with coal, Appalachia, rural poverty, working class, etc… because there’s easy access here. They can find people who both understand the community and the role that media plays in our society. National outlets ask these people to be liaisons between them and a world that outsiders cannot understand in the few days they spend on these stories.
There are opportunities for those of us in the community to show this region for what it actually is by advocating when being interviewed by national media, and by creating media of our own. We can tack on the words “coalfields” and “Appalachia” to our jam, and get a whole different kind of attention for what we’re doing. If we’re smart, we can use this, well deservedly, to our advantage and benefit the community in much needed ways. However, as often, if not more often, the misuse of this two-sided coin can foster an ugly stink that divides and defeats the efforts of all community members and brings us to the point of a dysfunctional mess.
What is a small town’s place in national movements like the ones I listed above? How do we recognize our shortcomings and work to better ourselves? Right now, in many ways, we are squandering opportunity when it comes to uniting the middle and younger generations of artists, musicians, and creative professionals to best serve this community. With all the knowing we have of one another, you’d hope that there would be communication that allows for mediation when conflict arises. That there would be benefit of the doubt. Efforts to lovingly teach one another when we have a bit of information or a way of looking at the world that hasn’t quite caught on here, but would be beneficial. Yet, the same knowing that would and should allow for such things also enables the environment for labeling, egos to be swollen and bruised, and for people to walk away without consequences for actions they should have to stand up and answer for. Sometimes, in such small towns, people choose not to look each other in the eye and talk a thing out, but instead to talk behind backs while smiling at faces and if not that ignoring and avoiding one another so that a conflict becomes abscessed and irreparable.
What is our identity in the larger national conversation? How do we acknowledge the uniqueness of the place we live through the way we approach these conversations? What does our activism look like? What will our impact be on this national conversation, but more importantly, what will the impact of our actions be on our community?
It’s often said that when something is experienced outside of here whether it be a trend in fashion, a new technology, or a change in the overall accepted collective mindset, that it takes a decade for it to become a thing in southeastern Kentucky. We’re 10 years behind “the times”. Yet, with increased access to the internet and smart phones, we seemed to have sped things up a bit. I still think we are a people very attached to principles and habits. Overall, we still like to hold our grudges and blame every judgment on “what the Lord said” rather than our own inability to bend our thoughts and make an effort to understand. The fact remains that we are a people slow to change. We like familiar things. Stepping into the unknown is hard, especially if you’ve seen little of the world outside of these hills without the filter of a TV screen. We like what has worked for our people for generations. We don’t like to get “above our raising”. God forbid our education make us appear that we feel we’re better than our neighbor who was educated differently. We’re not a people that will be forced into anything. You try to force us and we will resist if not outright fight you.
So, how do we make change? A little at a time. How do we do it in a way that our community will embrace and support? We find advocates who have been and are deeply embedded in the community. They are the people the old folks can place with a few questions. They are the kids that grew up in the holler whose neighbor pissed in the creek and shit in the woods. The kids who avoided the toilet paper covered piles when they went traipsing up the hill. They are the people who are raising families here. The people whose brother is an addict, whose mother is losing a leg to diabetic ulcers, whose father is a displaced miner too indebted to retire, but too old to change careers. They are the people who go to church on Sunday for the hugs. They are the people with the emotional connection to the bulk population of the community. What else should these people possess though? The ability to process information. They make the effort to understand the information they receive and translate it to make it applicable in the community where they are. They don’t take the approach of “the movement” because they know it isn’t going to be effective in towns like mine. In fact, it will most likely slow down the progress. They are the people with the ability to see that all things exist in shades of gray and who in turn can love their neighbor enough to tactfully not make their bigotry worse, but to warm their neighbor to the ability to listen and learn better. That’s where change comes from, realize that we are first a community. Without you being a compassionate community member, change will not come. Every member has something to contribute, and every member that can evolve with the community is an asset.
We have to meet each other where we are, otherwise we are reinforcing the fear of the unknown. If the unknown, or those who label themselves as the unknown or unfamiliar are unbending, impatient, or at worst verbally or physically violent about their cause, they’re just alienating the same people they’re trying to educate. You begin with labels like “us” and “them” and you are already dividing the community in ways that are hard to repair. For example, I still have a hard time trusting the type of person that in school labeled me a “freak” and “ugly” and made every day at school difficult. I see those same people in the community or those whose appearance cause me to label them as a person we referred to as “popular,” and I have to consciously remember to breathe, to be kind and not automatically defensive, to drop the labels, to recognize that not every person who appears that way and will maybe even turn their nose up at me at first, will do so if they are given the opportunity to know me. If they cannot be patient, I must be patient enough for us both.
It breaks my heart and makes me burn with anger. Because not only are these people and institutions shooting their selves in the foot, but they are making it hard for others to make any headway in important conversations that economically and socially struggling communities should be having, creating more labels to overcome. Seeing members of my community consider leaving simply because there is no effective mediation of conflict and because of the competitive mindset of the arts and culture segment of the community (as if there isn’t room for all of us) pushing them into a feeling of not belonging, I’m left wondering where I fit in as well.
When I start feeling this way, I come back to the example that the yoga classes currently being held and grown in the community offer. I teach some of them. There is a neutral space where the community comes together through the goal of well-being. Not religion or politics. Not competition or who’s who. Not grant funding, spinning, or administering. Not this label or that. Not competing for this business or money. Not gossip or drama. Just humans looking for a moment of peace and well-being - together. I know I fit in there and I see magic happen there.
I firmly believe we have the resources within our communities to heal, to make change, to evolve and grow. I believe we can create our own opportunities. I believe we can find that neutral ground where magic happens. I believe there isn’t a need for competition that is not healthy competition. We definitely don’t need the toxicity created by the drama amongst our cultural work projects. I personally would trade the national outlet for the ability to not have to overcome the labels this drama has brought upon our community every time we try to integrate new ideas that have become associated with them. At the end of the day, I’m in my community. Before anything else, I’m from Letcher County, Kentucky. I have to live here. My work is here. The future of my children is being built here. The multiple outsiders that find their way here to make their impact for the better or worse are always tentative and fleeting unless they actually embed themselves in the community. The most effective and caring of them do. We should not bend to the outside influence, but we should learn from it. Learn and adapt to something we can use. Make it our own. Make it work for us. Make it community driven and resourced. We cannot be defined by what an outsider thinks we should be, nor the labels they create for their efforts and bring upon us. We have to stop the foolishness and the egotism if we want to survive effectively.
I found yoga much by accident. Maybe, it's more accurate to say that it found me because I wasn't looking for it, and even after trying it the first time I wouldn't say that I knew right away that yoga would become as important to me as it is today. I was 21 and living in a trailer park in Morehead, Kentucky called lovingly by the locals and college kids - The Blue Zoo. It's kind of a wonder yoga and I found each other at all, me being an Appalachian mountain woman and yoga at that time being still very much an urban centered activity. It was the new millennia. It was 2000. We survived Y2K and the end of the world, but I found myself newly married, overweight, depressed, and exercising like a mad woman.
I had just been told by my doctor that my scoliosis would prevent me from my daily running from then on out and I had switched to aerobics and living off of canned sweet peas and York peppermint patties in hopes that I could find out why I was feeling so terrible and gaining weight. As every good exerciser who came into the fitness world in the 90s, I absolutely loved Jane Fonda's workout videos. I exercised with Jane (who my mother resembles a great deal) and her co-teacher Laurel Sue (who reminded me of my aerobics instructor stepmother), nearly every day. I had the routines down pat. Then, one day, Jane came out with a new VHS
I didn't come back to yoga again for four years. When I finally picked it up again, it was because I was pregnant with my first baby and I wanted to have a natural, unmedicated birth. I read in my What to Expect book that yoga was a really good prenatal exercise. So, since I already new a little, I did that. I picked up Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa's prenatal DVD. From there, I practiced yoga off and on, but fairly consistently through three pregnancies. I used yoga to lose 100 pounds after my second baby. During that period, I went to my first yoga class and had the teacher tell me that my thighs were so big that my sit bones would never touch my heels in child's pose. (They touch my heels today, and I'm still thick thighed.) It became even more of a challenge to use yoga to prove that teacher wrong. I quickly found different styles of yoga and tried a good many of them. At this point I have practiced restorative, yin, vinyasa, power, Hot, kundalini, prenatal, Barkan, and BUTI Yoga. I began collecting gads of DVDs because I couldn't afford regular studio classes while living in Louisville and then after moving back to the mountains there were no yoga classes to be found. I taught myself from those DVDs. Trial and error, again and again, listening more deeply each time to find the "real" pose.
Before too long, I understood the spiritual nature of yoga and came to know it as not only a workout, but as a tool for spiritual practice. It was a way to move the energy of anxiety and frustration through my body and transform it into something that fed my body and made it healthy. In 2009, I was diagnosed with Hashimotos Thyroiditis, and yoga along with the autoimmune protocol paleo diet, has helped me be as healthy as is possible for me at this time. I was also working as a childbirth educator and it was only natural that my first yoga certification was yoga for pregnancy, labor, birth, and postpartum. In 2010, I went with my then yoga teacher and friend, Heather Bates, who had gotten training and along with another friend Jonathan Hootman, had opened my hometown of Whitesburg's first yoga classes. Jane Anne Tager was our teacher for that certification and we took the classes at the great Asheville Yoga Center.
It was after that when I started substitute teaching for Heather and Jonathan at North Fork Yoga. My home practice had, by this time, grown to 5-6 days a week for an hour each time. Then, in 2012 when my doctor told me no more high impact exercise, I switched strictly to yoga as my form of fitness. By 2014, I wanted to start offering yoga to my community on my own as Heather and Jonathan had each moved on from teaching yoga in Whitesburg. Because I had small children and no way to come up with $2,000 and travel every other weekend several hours away for a year to receive an in person certification, I enrolled in Anmol Mehta's Yoga Teacher Training. I completed the over 600 page book and passed the 20 question handwritten essay test and began teaching both kundalini and hatha yoga in my community. While an online program wasn't ideal, I chose it because I knew my community needed yoga, and I wanted to share a practice that I know and love with them. Ideally, I will find the money and a program that works for me soon as my daughters are older now. I am fundraising for my 200-RYT currently.
Over the years, I've become about as passionate about yoga as I have been about anything in my life. I say it saves my life every single day as I battle thyroid disease, polyarthropathy, and mental illness. It has given me life more times than not, and it has made it possible for me, finally at 38, to feel at home in my body.
I've collected and read numerous books about yoga to continue my studies, and I have taught classes in Pikeville, Whitesburg, Norton, Hindman, and Isom. I've taught in yoga studios a library, hillsides, a settlement school, and in gyms to groups of 30 and parties of 1. I have fallen down on my mat crying ugly tears in the middle of a studio class, but also smiled so hard my face hurt. I have taken studio classes in various places every opportunity I have. Yoga has taken me to the limits of my body and mind and back again.
I I have held myself accountable for the yoga I teach, as I have had to out of necessity. I didn't have an in person teacher, so I found the answers in books, DVDs, online, and asking yoga teachers on Facebook. I could not share yoga in my community without being a dedicated practitioner of yoga or without caring enough about my students to be able to keep them safe and share proper alignment and modifications. While my yoga education is not the highest certification available, coming to yoga first as the student and second as a sharer has kept me in constant practice and growth within my personal practice. I share with those in my class from experience. I have a head full of cues and adjustments that make yoga accessible to most who walks through the door of a class I am responsible for. I have all the precautions in place and a heart for sharing a practice that has changed my life. My community cared enough about my continued education that they crowd-funded my newest yoga certification for the practice that has changed me so much in the last six months - BUTI Yoga. I will forever be grateful. I certified this past July with Talen Lane in Nashville, TN.
Whether or not I am the most credentialed teacher, doesn't matter. What matters is that my students and those who hire me to teach trust me. What matters with yoga is one's dedication to practicing and being a student. Am I willing to read all I can? Am I willing to practice 1-2 hours six days a week? Am I willing to say, "I don't know, but let me find out for you," if a students asks me a question I don't have the answer for? Am I willing to continue my education formally as opportunities present themselves? Am I willing to invest monetarily in my yoga classes and education. Those things matter. Do I love my community more than my ego? Am I willing to be open and sincere? Yoga asks us all the hard questions. To truly practice, we have to start to lose the competition we're always in with ourselves and meet ourselves right where we are, wherever that may be.
In the 16 years since I started with Jane Fonda's yoga, my yoga practice has become an expression of my faith. It gives me my fullest life. It is a gift from Universe even on the very tough days. It demands that I don't stop, but I come to the mat just as I am. It asks me to listen to my body, to the world around me, to the voices of all the members of my community. It requires of me compassion and mindfulness. It fosters in me and attitude of service. It has helped me embrace my womanhood, sexuality, and Divine Feminine. Buti Yoga has given me a tribe of truly supportive women who call ourselves - butisattvas, to encourage and uplift me. Yoga has become a friend, a tool, and a medicine. It would be wrong of me not to share what I have learned so those I care for can know this journey too.
In 2012, I decided to stop being a doula and childbirth educator. After an exhilarating birth experience with my youngest daughter, a friend of mine suffered a tremendous tragedy in relation to serving at another woman's birth. My friend went through a loss of her whole present and future dreams. She went through 10 months of being locked away in a county jail without a trial, and without seeing the light of day. Ultimately, the original charges against her were dropped. She never faced trial.
Watching the sisterhood within my friend's community become so divided, and at the same time witnessing the rallying of sisterhood that was shown to support her innocence, I realized that in order to empower women to stand fully in their strength - fearless and bold, it was the feminine power of the sisterhood that needed healing. Being a woman is not easy. Despite all the work our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers have done to make the experience of being female in this world easier for us, there is still so much work to be done and most of that work is inner work.
I didn't know what my place was in regards to reaching out to women. Healing THE sisterhood is a huge undertaking and no one person can affect enough change to accomplish that task. One person, plugged in to the right things, and in the right time and place however, can "be the change we wish to see in the world." Mahatma Gandhi didn't say those words exactly, but he did say this:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
It was in the shower one morning that I came to the decision to quit my job as a radio journalist. In a matter of minutes, I concluded to leave behind steady $15 an hour pay and full benefits to once again venture out on my own to chase a calling I've had since I can remember as someone who shares information with others. I'd teach yoga. That was the only thing for certain. But, over the last few months, more work has presented itself to me as well as more education. To be a "teacher" you must forever be a "student".
This week, I'm going to Nashville, TN to become certified to teach BUTI Yoga. BUTI is a style of yoga that combines primal movement, dance, power yoga, and kundalini activation. BUTI is geared toward self-love and sisterhood. Founder Bizzie Gold says the following:
"The beauty of the experience is that we don't have to be exactly like each other to BE sisters."
Another way I've stepped out of my comfort zone is that I have become a Younique presenter. Younique is a direct sales cosmetics company that offers a top quality product with the mission to - Uplift. Empower. Validate. women. Women are coming together around the art of self expression through beauty, forming teams, and working with each other to create businesses that fit our individual lifestyles. Younique also has an active role in fighting sexual abuse through the Younique Foundation and the Defend Innocence campaign. I never dreamed I'd want to be involved in direct sales or with makeup at that, but I was inspired by the mission and when I tried the product, I found I really didn't want to use any other brands, so why not be a presenter. Now, I'm working with an amazing team of women called - Graceful Beauties. Our team is led by a nineteen year old woman! She's a rock star. And, I'm inspired daily by the women on the team, including Carrie Campbell a long time friend of mine who is my sponsor.
What I know for certain is that in supporting one another in being holistically healthy and feeling free to express our inner self outwardly, we will learn empowerment. Empowerment will come naturally. We will know there is room for all of us. Bizzie Gold says, "Our vibe attracts our tribe." If we are putting out there our authentic selves, those sisters who roll with a similar energy as we do, will come out to tribe with us.
Sure, it's a risk. There are other yoga teachers and makeup reps. It isn't about competition. It's about creating space for all of us to thrive. We succeed when we uplift the good work of one another. When we acknowledge our individual gifts, and come together to support those gifts being made available in our communities. I'm willing to be brave with my life. Happiness is a choice they say. In some ways, I agree. We can choose to see the positive in everything. I try to understand that to everything there is a season. Happiness doesn't come with steady money. Happiness can come with being of service. In the end though, it's one step at a time, without judgement, and with a willingness to see that we all have a story and a gift to share.
The look pictured above was created with these Younique products:
~Moodstruck Minerals Concealer in Fabulous
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To shop my Younique website visit www.truly-express.com or connect with me on Facebook.
The April 8th opener for Saturday Night Live, “Donald Trump Goes to Kentucky,” is the latest example of what many Appalachian academics, activists, and advocates feel is outsiders taking liberties with extreme representations of our people and culture. In the skit, four Kentuckians from Boone County (not in Appalachia or the coalfields) express concerns to President Trump who is there to relish in undying support. They express their concerns. Trump replies in his vague and ridiculous manner. Each of them sit down a little shell shocked, but still wanting to believe the president they elected has their best interest at heart. Almost immediately after the skit aired, my Facebook newsfeed was ablaze with offended eastern Kentuckians admonishing the writers of the skit for stereotyping and making us out as idiots. A little later, came more blogging about liberal elitism and how the Democrats are to blame for our communities’ Trump votes.
I have felt the need to add the qualifier, I am a coal miner's daughter, to add credence to my writing or a thought I was hoping to express since the "Trump Digs Coal" slogan and his election, I've done it countless times. As far as I have been able to gather, my family ended up in this far armpit of eastern Kentucky to mine coal on all sides. We've been pioneers of the Appalachian mountains since we came over the big water, and my Cherokee family, well... this land is theirs.
The top picture is my great great grandparents on the Hansel side and where my name is descended from - Zachariah Taylor Hansel and Elizabeth Evans Hansel. The little dark headed fellow standing next to his dad is my great grandfather John Thomas Hansel Sr. The Hansels moved to Harlan from the Mount Sterling area of Kentucky to mine coal and that is where the very direct experience I have with coal miners begins.
The bottom picture is William Stephens and Amanda Sue Clay Stephens from Olive Hill, Kentucky in Carter County. They moved to Letcher County during the building of Jenkins, Kentucky which was built by Consolidation Coal Company beginning with the purchase of the land in 1911. My great grandmother who was my babysitter all of my young years was their daughter - Golda Ruth Stephens Johnson. She was born in 1912 as the first of eight children. It seems the family came around 1914 to Letcher County for coal mining. My Mamaw Johnson always told me her daddy was a Blackfoot Indian which seems kind of strange to me considering he or his family would have had to travel a long way in order get to Olive Hill, Kentucky from Montana or Canada even. Who knows though? He's definitely from somewhere.
Golda Ruth (Goldie) married Luther Johnson. Papaw Johnson was my best friend when I was small and the way we spent our days together was directly influenced by his time as a coal miner. Luther is the tall man in the second row with the pipe hanging from his lips. He was a union miner as most were in those days. Yet, he realized really fast that being in the mines wasn't going to pay him off in the long run and could potentially take him from his family and this old world. Papaw Johnson had the wit, grit, and wherewithal to find a way to get himself out of the mines and into the business of being his own boss. Weekends at the Isom Stock Sale turned into the Cowshed Trading Post, and there I "helped" him keep shop nearly every day of my childhood. The Cowshed was a kid paradise.
That brings us back to the Hansel men. Pictured below is John Thomas Hansel Sr. and Junior, both coal miners. Great Papaw Hansel lost his larynx to throat cancer, and as a kid I used to be fascinated that the piece of gauze that flapped over the open hole in his neck was the only thing that kept the outside world from seeping in to his body where it could not be rightfully contained. I will never forget the hushed sucking and choke sound that he used to create his voice with family. He didn't like the mechanical voice box to use all the time. Inconvenience, I suppose.
Papaw Hansel became an electrician in the mines and eventually took that skill and became a teacher at the vocational school in Letcher County. So, he too found a way out of the mines, but not the economy dependent upon it. When I was 8, he moved his family to South Carolina where he applied his mining skills working on machinery and such things at a fabric printing plant. He passed away of bone cancer in South Carolina just a few years ago.
So, here I am. This proud coal miner's daughter working for a place that has the commonly associated tag of "anti-coal" by some in the community. My dad supports my work and always will because he's confident in how he raised me. Here's the thing... Appalshop is not "anti-coal", we are an arts, culture, and media organization who documents and preserves life and tradition in Central Appalachia. However, you will find some related people who in their personal lives and opinions are not believers that coal mining is good for the region and especially strip mining. Yet, as with any organization, company, or workplace you will find a wide range of beliefs none of which in and of themselves represent the principles of the organization.
My dad experienced some of this directly when he worked for Enterprise Coal which was located in the building next to Appalshop at one point in time. A member of a visiting group called Mountain Justice Summer who were in Whitesburg to organize and demonstrate against mountaintop removal coal mining vandalized my dad's work truck by urinating in the truck bed and marking the paint. They were caught in the act and when my dad tried to confront them, he was spat upon. Now, someone not understanding that various organizations sometimes have to interact would leave that situation with a very strong opinion about "liberal" minded people who protest mining and because they were visiting Appalshop, direct that opinion onto Appalshop.
Fortunately, my dad knew better. He knew that many of the founding members of Appalshop were his neighbors and classmates in school. He played basketball for Whitesburg High School with one and lived down the street from another for awhile. He knew a large number of Appalshop employees were locals. Of course, he held some really strong feelings about the association and the kind of education or encouragement that would lead young people to violate the respect of their elders and personal property. I think he has mostly let that go these days. I haven't, and I won't. It's been said about us "hillbillies" that we have tribal loyalty to a fault. Maybe we do, but I plan to set this action right for the good of my community as best as I can. I want to redeem the dignity of my dad and the men and women who stay, work, and worship here.
The recent election has brought new attention of the coalfields and it seems we've become the poster children for "Trump Country" as before we were and always seem to be the poster children for American poverty. It's really laughable, but at the same time I've seen a lot of troubling behavior stem from this renewed attention. Every week, I produce a 5 minute radio news roundup of the coal industry and its place in the bigger picture of the energy profile of the United States. It's unbelievable how many ways the same thing can be rehashed with different words and published to lock in the attention of new readers. I doubt there was ever a planned "War on Coal" fueled by legislation aimed to cripple the industry. I do believe some of the legislation did not help an already failing industry.
James Higdon wrote the best article concisely explaining what I believe to actually be happening for Politico and it was published last week - The Obama Idea to Save Coal Country. He begins with the "War on Coal" and takes us through Kentucky Republican Representative Hal Rogers's RECLAIM Act which was shot down by Republican law men from the western coalfields states which is the most recent government effort to provide assistance to the barely breathing economy of the Appalachian coalfields.
I think of the information in Higdon's piece, my dad's experience with social justice activists, the media coverage of my home during the election, and the disgusting opinions of people wishing death upon Trump supporters and coal miners reflected in the Facebook comments of a radio story my colleague Benny Becker produced with Howard Berkes when it was shared by National Public Radio (NPR), and I'm embarrassed to be thought of in terms of political leanings or someone who could sit by and do nothing in response to the comments of the very people who claim to have a heart for the poor and troubled. Here are some examples from that comment thread.
"One candidate ran on improving job training and education opportunities as the means for navigating the 21st Century job market. The other candidate promised to bring back coal mining jobs. Millions of Appalachians considered those proposals and said, "I want black lung disease, too!" ~Jeff Fulmer
"West Virgina, PA, and Ohio...all solid Trump territory. They loved that the fool actually said he would bring coal back, and that he would dismantle ACA (Obamacare). For many years, people like me (considered the coastal liberal elite) fought to bring politicians into power to bring jobs and health care to these regions---services that we personally don't need in regions that we don't live in--because it was the right thing to do. But apparently, a bigoted, misogynist snake oil salesmen promising them a version of the US that looks like Berlin in 1939 was more appealing. So, this liberal American is done with the Rust and Bible Belts, and focusing on California and California only." ~Michelle Whiting
There's so much wrong with these comments and the disgusting political divide that they represent that I would have to write my own book, or create a collection of the articles already written in counter to such opinions. It boils down to the fact that a mono economy was purposefully created in the coalfields by the coal companies that wished to take the money to the bank. They wanted to make this money on the backs of people they considered as little more than property. This labor created the "coastal liberal elite" cities that Ms. Whiting referenced through the industrialization of America. When these men died under needlessly dangerous conditions and did not receive fair wages, sometimes being paid in script instead of money which could only be used in company owned stores, they fought battles against their employers and the United States government to earn Americans the fair labor laws we have today. Because coal mining was seen as a service to the nation and a vital support of the entire American economy, these men and women found their worth in mining coal and providing an honest living for their families. Americans have demanded coal to power this country for the last 100 years and now the region of America that was populated for the sole purpose of mining coal has been forgotten and looked upon with nothing less than disgusted disregard by people who would claim to be interested in the pursuit of social justice and opportunity for all. The people making these comments have no idea what our families fought for and that now, coal mining done right and well is not without risk, but fairly safe and pays really well in the $70,000 a year range with no college debt for those that go in right out of high school. Add to that, full benefits, and aside from the fact that coal has been in steady decline and these jobs have become fewer and fewer, who wouldn't mine coal? It isn't coal mining in and of itself that has caused the problems we see in coal mining. It is however, crooked politics and money that has.
Then, there was this article by the founder of Daily Kos, the left leaning group blog for those involved with "netroots activism" to further the socially progressive policies and candidates in politics - Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for.
That article solidified my questioning of being involved at all in journalism or anything that can be labeled left or right. I've never desired to be a career social activist, and I don't now. I mostly see it as hot air blowing. I'm more interested in the tangibles. My community is more interested in the tangibles. As my ancestors chose to make a life here, and stayed here to do a job they were told was important for the well being of the nation, we work in the hard rock of reality. We always have.
Last week, Daily Kos tried to redeem itself with An Open Letter to America's Coal Miners and America by former coal miner and company man, Mark Sumner. I wish Sumner had taken his letter to another outlet, or maybe he wrote the appeal as a prompting from Daily Kos as a redemptive action. However, the letter is quite good. As Higdon's article summarizes the realities of the down-turned coal industry well, Sumner encapsulates the feelings of a miner and his family in a pill that's hard to swallow. Voting for Trump was a hail Mary for the coalfields. No one representing the power in this country or the liberal or conservative elite has fought hard enough for the future of a people that in no small part helped build this country.
Some would argue that with the same vote for Trump that we expect to save some jobs, we screwed ourselves out of the best healthcare access we've ever had. Increased access to healthcare only does so much. Yes, it provides more healthcare industry jobs. Yes, it brings federal dollars into our economy. Yes, it brings some people who desperately need doctors into the clinics to receive care. What we know well is that as always, federal programs are subject to change and political whim whereas a good job is a Godsend. One statistic someone might share with me is how many of the people who are insured for free under the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid actually made it to the polls to vote. And, because our access to news is somewhat limited by poverty and lack of wide availability of broadband internet, a jaded media brought confusion by renaming the Affordable Care Act to the point of essentially doing away with the original title - ObamaCare. And then, memes like this were created.
You know what's real hillbilly of me. I wanna fist fight you people. What I want to do is scream at you and make your nose bleed. It would be wonderfully gratifying. In your social activist and liberal and segregated city bubbles, you are part of the system that have always seen my ancestors as collateral and expendable. You want people to believe that we are all lower class white people, which in my layout of my family history was disproved. If this is widely believed, you feel you have permission to publicly belittle us and make fun of us and still call yourselves politically correct. I wouldn't care if we all were the color of hospital bed sheets bleached to stiffened, you still have no right. We are human beings, and you in doing so are a hypocrite and I don't trust you to have my well being in mind or anyone else's that you see as against your social values.
When Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination and then said, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." the Democratic party lost coal country. I understand that taken in context Mrs. Clinton's comment can be understood in a totality that adjusts the impact slightly, but not enough. Our region's economy is hurting so bad that such an insensitive comment could not be redeemed. Many of us became willing that very moment to see in tunnel vision as many working poor must, to where our next meal will come from and if our kids will have equal or more opportunity than we do, and take a gamble on the nutcase of a Republican candidate and businessman - Donald Trump. In case you want to know what those of us in the eastern Kentucky coalfields think about opportunities for our children, in the Spotlight on Eastern Kentucky the 2012 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 65% of us said the next generation will be worse off than the current generation of working adults. To not expect us to fight for anything we can to fill those gaps, would be akin to us consuming our own children.
It was a two party and polarized political system that failed us by creating an environment where such a thing could occur. Both parties see the coalfields Appalachians as expendable or little more than pawns in a game of dollars. See as proof of this an article from the Heritage Foundation explaining away a government bailout for UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) backed pensions. The same government that created a situation where homeless veterans beg for money and food in Washington D.C. and 20 veterans commit suicide every day after they sacrificed themselves in service to the country is well on its way to allowing former, elderly coal miners to lose the healthcare and benefits they earned by retiring coal miners. This same government allowed an industry to push out the unions without requiring that they do anything in good faith to the miners who made their money. Here's one fine example of how coal miners are being thrown out with the sludge and coal ash in order to give company executives big bonuses in hopes they'll stick around even though their job won't last even with the down sizing of debt and assets. Alpha Natural Resources is just one of many. Corporate greed and government complacency.
I could go on and on and on trying to explain to you why so many of the people I know, respect and love voted for Donald Trump, but I think so many of you would continue to think of us as merely ignorant or stupid and will label us with your social justice buzz words like - misogynistic, anti-Islamic, homophobic, and white supremacists. That's an easy way for you not to claim your responsibility in the creation of this situation we're finding ourselves in, and your democracy's willingness to overlook a group of people hidden away in the mountains of Central Appalachia as a means to keep progress moving forward without facing the issues that progress was making.
I won't fight your ugly words with more ugly words. I won't hunt down the brainwashed kid who thought he was protesting "corporate greed-heads" by spitting on my dad and kick his teeth in. I won't even laugh out loud as I see those who identify with us either celebrating or debating the very simplistic and unthought provoking memoir of J.D. Vance just one more time. I mean dag gone ya'll, give it a rest. Instead, I'm going to listen to you when you speak. I'm going to take your concerns deep within, and I'm going to ask the hard questions of my community that need to be asked. I'm going to try to encourage people who are working with the concrete things that can offer some relief in our dying coal towns every day. Those who are offering things we can touch. Things we can eat. Words that give hope instead of tear apart. I'm going to keep talking about opioid addiction for the very fact that it's damn unpleasant and it is another way the people here have been exploited for the sake of a dollar. I'm going to give prescription drug misuse a human story because I've lost a stepmother and numerous friends to it. I don't care what anyone thinks about focusing on solutions rather than problems. Our problems haven't been faced in any real way yet, and until we do that, we won't see solutions, we'll see bandages.
I am going to love on people as best as I can with the gifts I have. I will share the story of my people with those in these city bubbles who do give a hoot and want to listen because I know there are more reasonable folks than there are hypocrites. The thing that keeps me going in radio journalism is the thought that someone is listening who cares or who is willing to change their mind when presented new facts. The God's honest truth is that I don't know that journalism is where I can best serve my community. I'm giving it everything in me I have to give, but I question the tangibles. I am going to share yoga with my community to help heal the deep generational trauma we have experienced. I'm going to share spiritual insights that have helped me. I am going to try my best to be a mediator between you folks and my community. I'm going to try to heal broken relationships related to this ugly rhetoric. Relationships that on both sides we should have fought harder to maintain. I'm going to write ranting blogs like this one, fiction, and poetry. I'm going to love people instead of ideas. I'm going to consciously choose the middle road.
The following are two long Facebook posts I have made this week leading into the Trump inauguaration.
January 19, 2017
"Mama, you're pretty crazy," Gwennie says to me this morning while I'm getting her dressed. "Yeah Buddy, I am," I say. I had just been thinking about how these small eastern Kentucky towns are so insular. Thinking about how they aren't big enough to hold all the passionate, smart, and rightly heart convicted people in them and keep us all kind toward one another, not jealous, and without drama.
In two days, Donald Trump will be inaugarated. So many are scared. I remember when some I know were scared that Obama was the AntiChrist and made ready for an oncoming revolution - stockpiling guns/ammo, canned food, and water. I'm not scared of Donald Trump. No. I fear the hurt we might cause one another when our hate has light shed upon it. Hatred of ourselves and fear of the unknown. Unconscious beings giving birth to unconscious actions.
Appalachia has been deemed Trump Country by the press. Most of the people I know did in fact vote for Donald Trump, if they actually voted. People I love and respect voted Trump. The answer as to why someone could vote for a racist, misogynistic, and sexually deviant (I don't judge what he likes to do in his bedroom. I don't agree with that kind of judgment as long as it is between fully consenting partners. I'm judging the fact that he wants to shut women up by "grabbing them by the pussy".) individual is very complicated. I do not judge anyone for voting for Trump. I don't bash or treat anyone who voted for him like an idiot. I can understand how they came to that decision. We meet each other where we are.
The fact is, we have a national narrative to change and some healing of ourselves to do. No, we are not racist, sexist, or religiously radical people. No. We were all born naked of a womb and shaped by genetic predisposition and how the world around us shapes how we think we fit into it.
I overheard a conversation in the grocery store a few days ago. "___ wants me to get whole wheat bread. I hate that stuff," said Man 1. "Well, Preacher Bill says it's us who is supposed to do what you all say," said Woman. "That's right and it just ain't that way anymore now is it?" said Man 1. "I don't know what's gotten into this world. Everything is so out of order. We'd all be better off if we could just get in line," said Man 2. "That's the Truth. And, I trust Preacher Bill," said Woman.
I know Preacher Bill. He's a friend of my stepdad and the preacher of my stepdad, mom, and brother's church. He's coming on 80 if not already. He's a kind country man and he loves people so much. He came to visit Deladis in the hospital here in Whitesburg when a stomach virus put her in for 4 days. He slipped me a $20. Beautiful man. Loves us dearly. You and me. Is he right here? Absolutely not, but I know where this teaching comes from. I know Preacher Bill's heart and the life experiences that has shaped his train of thought.
Yesterday was a very difficult day. Out of the gate I had to drive an hour and fifteen minutes away to the doctor way too early. I got pulled over, cited, and received a court date. (Please someone tell me how to erase leadfoot out of my DNA.) And, had some hard conversations. But, later on I had to be in Hazard for a story I am working on. I sat down with some people and heard their tale of struggle, but ultimately of hope. I got to tickle some baby toes. On the way there, I passed by a trailer park. It was one of the ones that have trailers packed into a space like sardines in a can. But, one woman had a side yard. And this picture is of her January garden. Everything in it was created by what many would consider trash. She was out hoeing. A just beyond middle aged woman. Two doors down, her neighbor flew a Confederate flag. As they say, Appalachia isn't a diverse place. All foreigners are Middle Eastern, Indian, or Asian and they are doctors who won't stay. While there is truth in every stereotype, and in many ways one can draw that conclusion. This woman was a dark skinned Asian with beautiful black hair. Living in a trailer park. Hoeing a lovely January garden with frost cover made from trash.
I love my place. I also hate my place. It's a balance. But, if I have the power, I am going to try to paint in the mind of America a truer story of my place. A bigger picture. A call for empathy. A call to hear the voices of the voiceless. A calling out of hate directed toward those you see as inferior to you.
January 20, 2017
We are probably all aware that rural America has been dubbed - Trump Country. Many liberal minded folks have taken to degrading rural Americans - and especially coalfields Appalachians in multiple ways and across a variety of platforms.
I've been trying to read Anthony Flaccavento's latest article in Yes! Magazine for 2 days. The next few months are going to be busy for me at WMMT. I'm working on some big things. So, sometimes, I can't keep up with all the reading I should be doing. However, I've been to Anthony's farm and we featured one of his talks on Mtn. Talk Monday. He's a smart man. In this article, he tries to address what liberals/progressives are questioning - how did we lose the rural and working class? Many of that camp of political beliefs feel they are the champions of the poor. What I have found to be true is they misunderstand us a great deal.
We are not stupid - we are common-sensical, practical, and connected to our surroundings in a myriad of ways. I heard more wisdom from a 23 year old mother of 3 when I interviewed her than I have heard in a long time. You can get the same thing at a DQ if you sit at a table across from where the old men meet every day and drink their coffee. Sure, you can hear a lot of bs that way too, but isn't it what we choose to pull out that frames the meaning of what we hear?
This young mother who I won't name right now because I'm working on making a few things with her story and would like you to listen to her, has said it best. This isn't a direct quote, but what she said was something like this - They think we like Trump so much. It isn't that we like Trump, it's that we hate the government. Well, not that we hate the government, but that we really distrust them. That is what got Trump elected. She's right. This has been a fact for a VERY long time.
Now, he is our president and we are about to see what that means. I think Flaccavento's #3 on his list is really good. Those of us working and hoping to diversify our mountain economy need to start producing tangibles. Start using practical language. Tell folks what it will mean to them, not later, but right now. And, if it doesn't make a difference right now, question whether it is the best use of an opportunity to work for good. Where are your efforts here best utilized? Where is the grant money you received best spent?
I sat in a meeting yesterday with a group of healthcare providers and administrators being asked to believe that story circles and art projects can help them figure out how better to help the community. One administrator said, I'm sorry... I have no clue what you are talking about. We work with numbers. We are practically minded. Another said, Yes - I thought it sounded like we were going to sit around and draw and figure out how to help someone with diabetes. LOL On the surface level, it does sound like a laughable proposal. But, when we think of qualitative and quantitative data and how one can inform the other, the idea changes. Thinking of how in one conversation we can pull out multiple ways to help our community by addressing hardships, it changes the picture a little. We talked about that, and they understood it very well. We listened to one another and addressed our individual concerns.
Trump has already threatened to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which could devastate them. Nothing new. People have been suggesting it for years. Remember the Save Sesame Street campaign? He also wants to defund The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I have a job in LARGE part because of these organizations. I have health insurance through my employer because of them. I share the news of our community to a national audience in part because of them. I don't make a lot of money doing the work I do, and not one person I work with does. We do this work because we care. Who knows what will happen if they take these organizations away.
In February 2015, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on his visit to Hazard said that we needed coal companies because they are the patrons of the arts. Let's see if Frankie Justice wants to fund my radio position. I'm not anti-coal. Have not bashed it. Will not bash it. I hope miners go back to work. My dad is one. My grandfathers were miners. But, is one person's job more important than another's. Where politics are concerned, it seems so.
Who knows what the next 4 years will bring? I didn't watch the Obama inauguration and I did not watch Trump's today. As the mama said, I don't trust the government to give any hoot about me, my family, my community, or my country.
I feel like I might be too simple minded to be writing my thoughts on this book. I cannot call it a review. When I saw the first inklings of promotion for the book and it's title (Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis), I thought - finally, someone brave enough to write the unromanticized version of contemporary Appalachia from an inside perspective. Then, among some colleagues and some listserves I belong to, I started seeing negative feedback about its contents, and I wondered if I should even waste my time reading it. As I tried to decide whether I'd read it so I could ethically participate in the conversation, it was quickly clear why I should. The feelings that I was encountering vicariously around Vance's work weren't based on anything that I felt was a validated response. I was hearing or reading comments from people who were reading critical reviews of the work, but had not read the work itself. Other comments came from people who had not grown up in southeastern Kentucky, which is a distinct region of Central Appalachia. It is a very distinct experience to be raised here or raised by people who still identify deeply with this place as their home. Yet, others were discounting Vance's work because he has conservative political leanings and no longer makes his home in the mountains. I had to read the book because none of these things should trump a person's individual and actual human experience as an Appalachian and the conclusions one draws from it. So, I bought the book the next day.
I have to say at this point, I have not read any actual review of Vance's work. I did so consciously so that I could form my own opinion of what I was about to read. I have had some conversations about topics that the content brings up, but not specifically based on what Vance shares in his writing. I listened to a short interview between Vance and Steve Inskeep of NPR because I was curious what this guy had to say about the "Trump Phenomenon". If I disagreed with anything Vance said in the interview, I can't remember. The only thing I remember thinking was that I felt he was hitting the nail on the head in a lot of ways. I did read a short article on the book in the New York Post. I will also share that I had an interaction with Vance on Facebook in a thread about his book. It went as follows:
Kelli Hansel Haywood - JD Vance... I appreciate the recognition that it is really, really complicated. I plan to read your book soon. I think facing issues head on, acknowledging them instead of being offended by the way it looks to others, and telling our own story is the only way to rebuild here. I came back to southeastern Ky to raise my family. It's a choice I don't take lightly and the more people I get to know who are ready to do what it takes (because it isn't going to be romantic at all) to heal this place, the more I hope that I will have a reason to stay.
So, with that background, I will share my thoughts on Vance's work from a "hillbilly" (though I typically don't use that term to refer to my people or myself) who pretends to be literate, but albeit might not be getting the right academic point that has gotten people's underpants in bunches.
I began reading the book with a pencil in hand underlining passages that I might quote when I write this post. I rarely write in books. It's kind of sacrilege coming from how I was raised to feel books are treasures and any marks I might add must be an inscription or some other kind of meaningful addition. The first passage I underlined and probably the only lengthy one I will quote is:
There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone's skin - "black people," "Asians," "white privilege." Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition -- their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. pgs. 2-3
I, like Vance, am from Scots-Irish and Cherokee descended working-class Americans. Throw a little Welsh, German, and Blackfoot in there of the same economic class of folks, and you have Kelli Hansel Haywood. And, like Vance, I don't idenify with the typical picture of "white America" defined as "white privilege." I'm not saying that I don't carry pivilege being a visibly white person. I can dress a certain way and move through any American town or city with some basic ease until someone wants to point out my womanhood, my "white trash" tattoos, or my "funny" hillbilly accent. With that combination, especially the accent, I become the "other" really quickly. It is my home and my people that I have heard degraded to my face when I travel. It is my home and my people that folks in Louisville would refer to as "that Kentucky" which they were adamant about not being. I've been made fun of in groups of people by colleagues and mentors for being this type of American. Add to that the fact that I can claim membership in the Cherokee nation, but do not look the part, and you have a double sense of outsider. Where do I fit, except as among those that do not fit?
So, you have to approach these thoughts of mine understanding that Vance is not writing as a commentary on eastern Kentucky, but more on the state of working-class Americans couched in his own experience as a displaced coalfields Kentuckian. As so many coalfields Kentuckians know, our people are spread all over this country because of the many outmigrations of hillbillies looking for work. Common places were Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan to the north. My own family went south in the more recent years - Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. One set of family members ended up in Alaska due to the military. Yet, just as Vance's grandparents experienced, home tends to always be these mountains even when you have been gone for decades, or even generations.
Vance's family ended up in Middletown, Ohio not very far from College Corner where my step-dad and his first wife spent some time during a period of outmigration from which they ultimately returned. Also, near Dayton, Ohio where one of my Mamaw's best friends from Liberty Street in Hazard, Kentucky ended up with her husband. And, from the time Vance was small, just like most other hillbilly families I have encountered, he came home to Kentucky on holidays and many weekends, It was very rarely those of us still living in the mountains that made the trek to the places where our family members had relocated. It was them that had to come home. All this to say, Vance is writing from a very common experience among eastern Kentucky families. You can take the family out of eastern Kentucky, but I wonder how many generations it takes to get the eastern Kentucky out of the family.
We cannot discredit Vance on the grounds of being "an outsider". As I continued reading, I found many more similarities between my own childhood and his. These similarities were also shared among many of my peers.
I could go on listing similarities for quite awhile, but will stop at these significant bullet points. I call them significant because this many commonalities between my life and a complete stranger's... even so many of my own classmates, cannot be coincidental. The lifestyle Vance describes, along with the idealisms and attitude, among our people is very real. I have heard and come across many seemingly strong opinions about what Vance's depiction of our people will cause in our broader national context. However, I haven't heard or read a single person who was born and raised in the mountains of eastern Kentucky say they didn't like the book. In fact, to the contrary. Many have found it to be very real and even refreshing. While I cannot agree with Vance on some very minut points because we differ somewhat on the political spectrum, I greatly appreciate his bravery in sharing his coming of age with us, with the world.
What I must question is the reactions of the public. First, I do not believe most of the reactions I have heard are coming from people who have actually read the book. I will read the reviews and listen to Vance's interview on Fresh Air soon to further my investigations into these reactions. At this point, I have to ask what it means to be so reactionary when someone shares what has been labeled as the "negative" aspects of being a hillbilly. What I think it means is that the people having these reactions fear an unknown. They fear having to address these real and ingrained issues in our communities when there seems to be no apparent solutions. On some visceral level, they fear that these issues make all the stereotypes true. I say stereotypes come from somewhere. It is only the somewhere is a misunderstood observation rather than an extensively researched and understood reality. So, stereotypes are judgments of what one has seen or heard and not understood. Can we not take the time to share our eastern Kentucky narrative in our own words through our own understanding and claim all of what we are at this point in time without being ashamed? Does everything not have a backstory? In this regard, I wish Vance would have been able to explain the effects that the coal industry had on this region, but Vance did not get out of line in speculating on this. He shares in his book only what he has experienced firsthand. It is honest.
In recent months, I have become very interested in the role epigentics can play in helping us resolve many of these issues that Vance and others (including me) find devastating. Because of this I was very glad to read Vance mention ACEs or "adverse childhood experiences" and how they impact us all through the rest of our lives. Of the list that Vance provides of possible ACEs, I have experienced all of them to varying degrees from one to more times than I can count. Vance writes:
Among the working class, well over half had at least one ACE, while about 40 percent had multiple ACEs. This is really striking -- four in every ten working-class people had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma. For the non-working class, that number was 29 percent. pg. 227
Does this fact make us an ignorant bunch of violent hillbillies? It seems some even among us some would think so. I say no. Many of our reactions come from generations of oppression. Because traumas are passed down in our DNA and triggered by things like ACEs, it is a credit to our strength that so many of us cope at all.
I firmly believe that it will be through accepting the realities of our culture and coping mechanisms both good and bad, and shedding some light on how they came about, that we will begin to heal and find the parts of ourselves that are our assets in order to be rid of the parts that are keeping us oppressed.
As Vance points out in his conclusion, I too believe that it is because of special circumstances that the successes we do experience here happen. These things happen in spite of a great many things. I'm all for holding up these very motivated and talented people and all the projects they are involved with, but not at a cost of allowing mainstream media to be the only ones reporting about our shortcomings. We can focus on the positive all we want and that will not change the fact that there are problems to be addressed and there aren't enough unique opportunities to give rise to an environment that fosters change and healing. Can we not do both? Can we not take charge in reporting and revealing our own shortcomings while also presenting and enactiing possible solutions? Vance isn't judgemental of the people he calls neighbors, family, and friends. On the contrary, he, like I, is very concerned about our future. It was at a recent town hall on Hep C that I heard a government official say that if we began a plan today to deal with the opiate abuse and resulting Hep C rates, it would be at least ten years from now before we'd know if it is going to work. This stuff isn't going away any time soon. In the meantime, how are we going to live with it? Continue to hide it until some outside reporter comes and reveals it like a lesion to the rest of the world?
We do need to create a space for the J.D.s and Brians of the world to have a chance. I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better. pg. 256
Can I get an Amen?! We will continue to be stuck if we do not act in this way. It will not be a president, a government, a corporation, a new lump of money, or a project that will bring us out of what can be seen as an abyss if you focus on the raw statistics. No, it will be acknowledging that these are people that are suffering, and young people who are being formed by this environment in a way that will forever affect their lives. Who can change it? The only ones with the power is us.
I see J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis as one of the most important texts written about contemporary Appalachia as it exists in the midst of so few. Yes, it oversimplifies some things. Overall, however, it paints an accurate picture of what it is like to be raised in a contemporary "hillbilly" family. Vance is not saying he regrets being a "hillbilly". In fact, I think he wrote this book because how he feels about his family is exactly the opposite. He believes they are worth the healing they deserve and that their path to healing will have a lot to teach mainstream America.
If you ask people in the county where I'm from - Letcher County, Kentucky, about my family, they would say that I come from a good home and good people. They would be right. I knew love throughout my entire childhood and I know love from my family today. In Part 1 of this series, I shared some of the moments from my coming into adulthood. When I shared the post on Facebook, several comments were about how real it "seemed" or "felt", and how they were sucked into the story. I wrote the piece in second person. I answered them that it felt real because it was; it was my own experience and every bit true.
I shared my personal experience because I am not ashamed of it and I believe it isn't an uncommon one. Part of me believes that the things I described are more related to living in a certain economic class of people and family dynamic in the United States than it is a uniquely Appalachian experience. It is maybe the truly severe bits that I didn't tell of that would fully couch my early life experiences more in place. The experiences I could share of joy and honest sadness would as well. I purposefully did not tell my most tragic of memories. The Appalachian experience gets plenty of attention for the tragedy of it. The unfortunate reality is that this tragedy is most often displayed or filtered through the eyes and mind of an outsider looking in and distributed through the national media outlets. Very little have I seen someone completely embedded in Appalachia and particularly eastern Kentucky telling the story and it reaching far and wide. For, if it were an eastern Kentuckian in complete control of the telling, the complexity of the Appalachian experience would be revealed. It would demand to be thought about instead of gawked at. To be digested and integrated instead of judged and laughed at. The truth is we are a people who have for over a century now have been told that our way of life isn't normal, isn't proper, isn't fulfilling, isn't joyfilled, isn't healthy, is poor, is backward, is ignorant... is less than. So, I ask. What do you expect to witness from the people who live in arguably the most beautiful natural landscape in all of the United States when for generations we have been told by nearly everyone that comes to visit that they can offer us something better, or that we need saving? Then, in turn, they exploit our hard working ways, our strong backs, and our common sense for their personal gain of ego or profit. What do you expect to see? What?
Now, I come to the part where I have to call out the most well meaning among you to think for a moment about what impact you want to make in my community. Why are you here and what do you want to offer us? And, if you offer, are you going to deliver and do what it takes to understand us well enough that you can? Otherwise, please, just enjoy yourself while you are here, make good memories, spend a lot of money, and pass on through. We aren't here for saving or for boosting anyone's ego. We are a people in transition. We will either succeed and be a story that renews the viability of the American Dream for the average and less than average person or we will fail and be a lesson to the country in the many different ways slavery can still occur in this country legally to line the pockets of the rich white men in control while others bank off the tragedy in their own ways under the guise of morality and ethics.
My people have been in the Appalachian mountains since before written record... since before the white man. My Cherokee ancestors made their home in these hills, respecting the land and managing the resources for posterity. My great great grandmother walked with a lame leg from New Echota/Calhoun, Georgia into Dayton, Tennessee at age fifteen. She followed the ridge as her people taught her to escape violence from white men as her mother wasn't able to do and the family who were separated from her through the Trail of Tears long ago and were in Oklahoma on Indian Territory and couldn't save her from the hardship. She had made the trip herself to Oklahoma several times with her parents. So, she walked. No, she ran away to never look back.. From Dayton, TN, she ended up in Hazard, Kentucky where her husband worked in the mines and was eventually killed in them. She remarried a British man there as I understand.
My Scotch Irish people came into these hills to escape the slums and prejudice of the cities. They wanted to find a home that reminded them of the Old Country so they settled in these mountains where they wouldn't be bothered. They developed a strong sense of place here, becoming clannish and protective of one another and their land. It was a sensibility born of necessity that has been passed down in our DNA as a trait that is as natural to us as breath. Many see it as mere violence and stupidity. We know that for us it has been necessary to fight for home, family, and freedom on our own soil more than it has been to fight in foreign wars. It has become our way to be wary of a stranger. It is a way we have survived. So many of us cannot be convinced to resist this instinct because we are not yet comfortable in this country, but we are at home in these hills.
I have spent all but seven years of my 37 in eastern Kentucky. I have seen very little of the United States or the world with my own eyes. I have only seen the ocean twice as an adult. I can't say I will ever see it again with any certainty. I have lived most of my adult life without health insurance. I've paid my own way in this world since I was sixteen. I have had to go to food banks to eat. I have had to use a chamber pot to relieve myself in my own home for months. I have had to have my teeth worked on at a RAM (Rural Area Medical) clinic, waiting all day in very uncomfortable conditions with a thousand or more people receiving medical care in an open very public place. I have lived with a drug addict. In fact, she was my stepmother. She'd make me pay my car insurance twice sometimes eventhough I had record of my having paid it. I know where the money went. She's dead now. I'm pretty sure drugs were the cause. She left my dad beforehand, but she was my stepmother from the time I was nine until I was 24 or so. I know addiction. Honestly, I know too many good and very intelligent people who have lost their lives to drugs either literally or because they are just a ghost of who they should be. People I love. People that have so so much to offer our place. I love them still and my heart aches for the loss of them and their contribution.
I have had to shelter my brother and sister under my arms and usher them into the house like a mother hen because our neighbors, two brothers, would take to shooting at one another. They lived in small campers and peed in the creek and crapped in the woods where we played. I don't know if they bathed. And yet, when my baby sister put a knife through her hand in the front yard, it was one of them to came to her aid using his shirt to put pressure on her hand. He saved her quite literally. It was one of them who worked on small motors and rigged bicycles to be motorized, buzzing up and down the holler. He chased an emu down the holler once calling - "An ostray... an ostray." That was funny. Almost as funny as when he came and demonstrated for us his Achy Breaky Heart dance.
Another neighbor had a hog farm. I watched many a killing there and can recall the smell every time I fry bacon. I put a rusty nail through my foot at their barn once, jumping from the loft. Another let their toddler run in the holler road with a sagging diaper. And later, one of their toddlers would get bit twice by a cooperhead on two different occassions walking through the grass barefoot at dusk. They lived in a trailer that most of the time had no running water or electricity.
I know what it feels like to have the wind blow hard on my face and through my hair from riding on the open highway in the bed of a pickup truck. I know what it feels like to be an adolescent girl and be looked upon by the eyes of a very drunk man and how the room smells after someone has holed up and went on an alcohol and cigarette binge. I know what it is like to share one bathroom and three bedrooms with five adults and six children. I have also seen what it takes to bring yourself out of a dark hole and run your own store as my great grandfather showed me with his Cowshed Trading Post. I know family secrets that would make you cringe.
And, again. I am confident none of this is uncommon. What I take issue with most of all is the shame we are made to feel about images in the media that others don't understand. The shame that comes with having these stories exposed to outsiders without any of the context. Books could be written, are being written, and should be written on how and why things are as they are here. Why aren't more of us being trusted to tell our own story to the world? A set of photos, an article, an essay is not enough to reveal anything much of substance that an outsider can understand. While we are seeing attempts at bringing more fullness into the display of our tragedy as shown in the recent series release by VICE, it still isn't enough to produce much more than gawking.
I put myself through college and I have a bachelor's and master's degree. I educated myself at the encouragment of a few good teachers, the cultural programming in my school provided through Appalshop, and my grandmothers who both encouraged me to be bookish. I now work at Appalshop as the Public Affairs Director of the radio station there - WMMT-FM. As others in our community are aware non-profits like Appalshop are often questioned in this region. As a young person, I would have never dreamed that I would be able to attend AMI (Appalachian Media Institute) or to work at Appalshop someday. Eventhough I had some friends whose parents worked at Appalshop, I was aware that many people there weren't from my town or weren't of families I knew. I knew no one who had gone through the media institute and spoke about it. When I met the kids from the institute, they all were from somewhere else it seemed. Other than a few, it did seem like people from somewhere else documenting our lives. People who had gone to fancy colleges and travelled a lot. People not like me and my family. I was in awe of them and their life. I wanted a life like that.
Things are a little different these days, or maybe they are the same and I'm just now understanding the reality. Most of the folks I work with are Appalachian, eastern Kentuckians, or long time residents. Not all of us graduated from college. All the kids attending AMI this summer are from eastern Kentucky except for one, I think. Appalshop is working closely within the community and with community leaders in a variety of ways. We are helping to initiate cultural programs in the schools again. And, WMMT is making radio that tells our story in our own words as well as the news that is important to us on a weekly basis.
I mention this because we have an outlet for our voice and the truth of our story that has the potential to be seen nationally. We have this resource right in our yard. Yet, I am well aware of the distrust and I totally understand where it comes from. I also think I know how to change that with many in the region.
What I urge us to do as we begin to reframe the stories being told about us in national media is to have a strong voice. Don't shy away from the images like those taken by Stacy Kranitz and displayed through VICE. I know these images are real. They tell a truth. It is a truth we need to address and if I am truthful myself, we aren't doing what we can to tell this story and to address this truth and people are dying because of it. We want to keep images of drug use, violence, and poverty confined to the urban experience and maybe even the urban minority experience, so we can confidently say, this is not us. No, that particular image is not us, but the images Kranitz gives us is. Period. The people in the pictures gave consent to be photographed. Why do you imagine they did? Were they paid and desperate for money? If Kranitz is acting ethically, no. Can we imagine a minute that it is because they are in pain and they want someone to know, understand, and offer some support for finding an answer or simply aknowledge their humanity? Can we think that just for a moment we need to own these pictures? Own them, talk about them, respond to the truth they reveal. I fully do not believe that we can see any triumph in this place until we own the tragedy and stop trying to push it back in favor of the few positive stories we are seeing, that are happening in spite of the tragedies out of tremendous perserverance and unbendable will. These stories should be told side by side as two sides of the same coin. We must expand the story and include even the ones in our communities that do not get told, for there are many. In eastern Kentucky, it's all real and comes from the same beginning.
We can revive a squaredance. We can create a state park. We can grow a pretty garden and sell at the farmer's market. We can promote art and music. All are important and necessary for moving forward. It is important to our children because it helps instill a pride for their place in them which we hope and pray doesn't get trampled by outsiders telling their story. Tell me though, what does that mean to the drug addict sitting in a haze on their bed wondering if they will have a meal today? What does that mean to the man who's life experience is described like this - "A true redneck don't give a shit about nothing but putting food on the table, working, and getting drunk." -Patrick Green from VICE (What it Means to Be a 'Redneck' or 'Hillbilly')? And, then you have a community with an outrageous unemployment rate. What does it mean?
I suggest we all not be ashamed of the tragedy. I suggest that we own it. We don't make excuses for it, but we analyze how it happened to our people and we begin to promote those stories. We praise those lifting themselves up and finding opportunities to be fulfilled here and to help their communities. We also understand that it is because of who they know, unending effort, continuous learning, and a little luck that it happened for them. It's true, and that's ok.. I know because my life could have looked very differently had I not had certain traits and support. I am a lucky one.
I urge us to not jump to defend ourselves every time these types of stories come out. We should stop that because it isn't nearly as interesting as the story itself, it will widely get overlooked, and it will not stop sensational media from being created. Ask anyone living in Compton, Mexico City, Baghdad. Yeah, do we know what life is like there? Instead, put our own images out with our own stories. Be loud until it can't be ignored anymore. Tell the truth everyone wants to hear, but give them the whole picture. While at it, share the story of the kid who made a film about her teenaged pregnant friend, or drug addicted parent, the dirty water coming through the pipes in their home, or how their vision for the future includes tolerance, inclusion, love, and peace.. Hear our young people when they say they don't need protection from transgendered people, but they need some resources to deal with the drug addicted people in their lives. They need some money for college. They need you to care how literate they are. They'd like to know and understand fresh food and clean water. Every year in the hospital in Manchester 200 babies are born. One-fourth of them will be taken to Kentucky Children's Hospital in Lexington because of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) or drug withdrawl. It costs about $53,400 to treat one baby with NAS. Most of that is covered by Medicaid. Then, what about after effects? Tell our children there is a future here when they are born to these statistics and with everyone arguing over whether or not Obama is the anit-Christ, there is a War on Coal, how good Christians don't condone this gay stuff, and how we are going to get ammo after they cut us off. We are side tracked by lies. Our children are being born into statistics we aren't addressing and we want to highlight the positive as a means for what? An Appalachian born child is well aware of what they have to overcome to have a life seen as meaningful to the outside world. We've been expendable for a long time, even to the people helping us. Tell us our tragedy matters and it didn't happen because we are stupid, ignorant, inbreed hillbillies. Tell us you see our tragedy and you see us too and we are beautiful.
Ok, I'm tired. I've been writing almost three hours. Can of worms... out. My contribution may not be very academic. I'd talk more with anyone in person if this at all feels convoluted. This contribution though is real. It came from my heart.
You are six years old. You live in a trailer park on the hill. Sometimes the rats and mice chew the noses and fingers off of your dolls. Your mom found a dead one in a pot one morning and cried. Your friend has told you there is a witch that lives in a house up a side holler that has a graveyard in it. It scares you when you walk passed there with your dad at night. This friend is a little older and right now she is drawing pictures of nude people and tying them to these puffy white flowers that grow on a bush. You call them snowballs. She takes the flowers with the attached pictures and throws them through the opened window of the trailer where the new boys moved in. They're teenagers. She's ten. She wants a boyfriend. Suddenly, as you both are ducked behind the bush, one of the boys pokes out his head and invites you and your friend in. You go in and they direct you to a room. The room is empty all but some boxes and a mattress on the floor. Before you know it, one of the boys throws you down on the mattress, climbs on top of you and begins kissing your mouth. "You want to kiss little girl?" he says. "Here's a kiss." That's how you learn what boys and men think about girls. It won't be the last thing you learn in that trailer park. Far from it.
Across from you sits your sister. She has a different mother and father. She belongs to your stepdad, but you feel like you were cut from the same cloth. You've been best friends since you were eight. You're 14. She's nine months and three days older than you. She says, "I don't know what to do." "What?" you answer. "I'm pregnant." Her boyfriend was much older. She began to cry. "What do I do?" she asked, beginning to punch her fists into her lower belly. "I have to make this go away." "It'll be ok. We'll figure this out," you say. You don't know how, but you know that you won't let anyone do anything to hurt her. You would risk your life for her. No one. No one knows you like she does and never will. You both manage to keep the baby a secret until at 5 months along your sister becomes very ill and the pregnancy is discovered. She spends the next several days on the couch at your house in and out of a fevered delirium. Everyone is really quiet and somehow you are relieved. Later on, when you ask permission for her to come to one of your eighth grade dances eventhough she attends a different school, you are excited when your guidance counselor says yes. As you begin to go in the building for the dance, this same counselor looks at your sister's stomach and asks you to call your parents to come back because they can't let your sister in. The night ends with alarms, cops, a ride in the police car, accusations, and your boyfriend trying to save the day. You are a straight A and B student. Always have been. Always will be. Yet, you and your friends are treated as if you are a problem. You realize that day what people really mean when they call you a "freak". In November when your sister has her baby, your parents make you stay at school. You feel like throwing up because you told her you would be there. You thought you'd be there. When you go to the hospital, they won't let you see her. They won't let you see the brand new baby that you were the first to know existed. There wasn't anything to save you from. Why were they keeping you away? Your sister breastfed and had an unmedicated birth at fifteen. That day you learned the power of a woman from a teenager. From that day on, she has been your hero.
You find yourself stretched across an unmade bed with your friends half dazed in a trailer heated by a coal stove, covered in what can't be just simple mess - it has to be debris? There are places where the daylight seeps through between floor and wall. Cats are on the counter eating some foul smelling leftover chicken. Something has to have happened here. Right? Nothing happened there but life, the life of teenagers unsupervised by a mentally ill middle aged woman who very occassionally raises her head and mumbles incoherently from her place stretched out on a couch as you and your friends pass through? This is normal and every day here. The boys who live here write poetry and think deep thoughts.
Working at McDonalds pays your rent. You've been working there since you were 16. Now, you are 18 and living in a house with four other people and paying your way through your general education courses at the community college to save money. You got a Rotary Club scholarship. It paid for your books. You'll spend the summer wondering how you will emancipate yourself from your parents so you can use only your income on your FAFSA and actually receive enough financial aid to pay your way through college. No one is going to pay it for you The only college money you had was from your great grandmother who took it from you and allowed others to spend it when you decided to move in with your dad in order to get away from a bad friend situation when you were 15. Now, you pay for everything. Medical bills keep coming from where you cracked your tailbone and realized after going to the hospital that your step mother really wasn't going to help you pay for it. In this moment you are sweaty. You smell like french fries and dehydrated onions. Your manager has had you and another female co-worker scrubbing the stainless steel and baseboards with toothbrushes to prepare for a health inspection. You both are begging him for a break. With a greasy smile, he says, "No, bend back over there and keep scrubbing so I can see that ass." Your heart burns, but you don't know what to do. You can't walk out of there just yet. You have bills to pay and want to go to school.
At the trailer park where you live a bleach blonde woman is your neighbor. She listens to the same Uncle Kracker song over and over so loud that you can hear it inside your trailer. It drives you nuts and makes you laugh at the same time. Her husband is a Mexican man. He's nice, but seems inebriated most of the time. They have twin boys. One of them has fetal alcohol syndrome. His mother shares that with everyone she talks to. He's sweet and reminds you of a wolf. The boys push their bikes up and down the lane and in circles instead of riding them. They did have motorized riding toys, but they got reposessed. You didn't know those kinds of things could be reposessed. You are studying English Literature at one of the closest state colleges to your hometown. You just got married. You are twenty. You had been dating your husband for five years. You both hated your off campus living situations and wanted to live together. You both came from families who would look down on that. It didn't much bother you, but you didn't want to disappoint your dad. Your husband gets some school money from his parents and they helped you get emancipated for your financial aid, so you definitely didn't want to offend them. So, one day, when he was helping you dye your hair burgundy, you asked him if he wanted to get married. He said yes. So you'd have an engagement ring, your sister talked a guy who was in love with her into buying one of the $99 diamonds at Wal-Mart. You wore it long enough to show your parents. Now, you have a nice little trailer all your own. $178 payment every month. But, it's yours and you can relax a little that there is no one. No one. No one you have to answer to anymore... but your husband.
Our family gathered to wait with us. It was snowing, and all the local buses were on calls. Our drivers came from Elkorn City to Prestonsburg to pick us up. We waited over two hours after getting the news. I had time to explain to Ivy about surgery. How most of the people she is close with have had surgery. How she was born and alive because of surgery. How she's strong, and I won't leave her side. I would never leave her side.
She slept on the ambulance ride. I texted with some of my mama friends and family a little, but I mostly watched her sleep. It was hard to reach her where I was belted in, but we had the kindest EMTs with us, and the man in the back also had three daughters. He'd reach over and run his fingers through her hair every now and again. He won't know how much I appreciated that he wasn't afraid to touch her for me.
Like I said, I planned. What would this look like? I had only been with my job since October 2015. I guess they'd just have to let me go. I had been a stay at home mom for 10 years and nothing like this had every happened to us then. Now, I had made the decision to change our entire lifestyle so I could find fulfillment and a purpose beyond parenting, and this happens. As my mind is always analyzing, I asked - What is Universe trying to tell me? Have I become a neglectful parent in my pursuit of engaging work? Am I a selfish mother in even considering how this all will affect me?
Thank God, it wasn't cancer! Ivy is on the mend. University of Kentucky Children's Hospital and her surgical team were amazing. She had a 6cm vascular abonormality that was a total bizarre fluke. They removed it all, and now, almost two weeks later, you can only tell that she was operated on because she has four little incisions covered with surgical tape.
We got home on a Monday evening late. I went directly back to work the next morning. I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay, but now, we are dependent upon my income. My income pays for all the new things in our life. A house that meets our spacial and privacy needs, tuition for cottage school, babysitting, food, insurance and my medical bills, my supplements and medicine, and gas money. I can't not work.
Again,because we can't do without this income, I thought, what have I done? I had to think on it awhile. I came to a conclusion that I had come to months ago as I was making the decision to go back into the workforce. It doesn't matter if I am a stay at home mom or a working mom, I'm going to have guilt placed upon my shoulders by myself and by society for all the things I'm expected to be and cannot. We cannot be everything - even to our children. Becoming a parent shouldn't mean we are expected to. Then, I realized, being at work was a kind of relief. I wanted to be both places, actually. At work, I could breathe. I could focus on something a little less heavy for awhile. I could see something through from beginning to end.
I remembered an essay in _Brain Child Magazine, online that I had read back in September before I knew I had gotten my current public affairs position. Aubrey Hirsch writes:
I’m learning a lot, too. The big revelation for me came the first time he woke up on a Saturday morning and, as we were lazily playing in our pajamas, said, “I want to go to Melissa’s!” Movies and mom blogs had prepared me for this moment to be heartbreaking, but it wasn’t. It was totally fine.
Before she ends the essay this way, she wrote, "Watching another woman cuddle and comfort my son didn’t feel bad; it felt great. I knew he would be fine and that Melissa would take good care of him." With those lines, I was reminded how I'm not a natural nurturer. When my own mother was caring for my dying grandmother, she broke down in her stress and grief and said, "I'm not good at this stuff. If I had wanted to be a nurse, I would have went to school and become one!" I realized so much watching my mother caring for my grandmother, and when she spoke those words so much acknowledgement poured through my soul. Hugging, rubbing, touching, holding... it all wore her out too. She too had to make an effort to do it in an extended way. I realized it wasn't that she didn't want to hug me growing up, but she got tapped out quickly. It didn't mean anything was lacking in her care of me or her love for me. It just meant she would show it in different ways that aren't typically associated with the act of mothering, and she did.
I hadn't thought I would be a mother up until a few months before I began trying to become pregnant with my first child. My plan was to be a writer. For various reasons, plans change. In this season of my life, I'm revisiting the dreams of my early twenties. Some would call that a mid-life crisis. Others might say I'm finally accepting myself. The biggest point is that I don't have to feel guilty for it. In fact, I have come to understand the huge contribution working mothers make, and how it actually is more difficult in many ways than being a stay at home mom. Mentally and emotionally, being a stay at home mom almost devastated me. It brought me to a very dark place after years of denying to myself that I really felt the way I did about not pursuing my interests.
You DO NOT have to be a martyr to be a mother. I wish for the life of me that society would help us convey to our daughters that you DO NOT have to be a martyr to be a woman. For if you find yourself a mother with a career or job, you may also find yourself holding the brunt of household chores, cooking, bill paying, errands, and outside family commitments. Going out and finding yourself is just another thing to add to the plate that is already spilling over the edge. Yet, it might be the most important piece in being not simply a caregiver, but a role model for your children. Being a role model can be achieved in the home and outside of it and will be particular to any given woman.
I'm still trying to find the balance of being both in the home and out of it. The truth is, I'm going to give up most of the yoga classes I teach so I can be home a few more hours in the evening. Mothers need rest and cuddles too. Even mothers who get tapped out quickly. We all need self care, but from what I see, especially women. Pursuing the interests and hobbies that help us nurture ourselves so that we can nurture our children and loved ones.
Hillary Clinton, back when I was younger was known for saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." She is right. Back in the day, the whole holler watched after your kids while they ran from house to house and hill to hill. Only since we have become nuclear families and neighbors with closed doors have we lost the village mentality. That doesn't mean that it still doesn't take a village.
Things happen, and I will be the mother who deals with them as they come. I will be the mother who seeks and finds herself. I will be the mother who shows her daughters that a woman can be whatever she wants without the permission of anyone. I will be the mother who knows and understands that we are each unique and being a good mother simply means providing an environment where your child is nurtured, safe, fed, warm, and loved however that may appear.
Kelli B. Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, and avid yogini. Haywood is the Public Affairs Director for WMMT-Real People Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Connect with her on Facebook @ Confluence Mama.
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